TACKLING 3 TOUGH ISSUES WITH VOLUNTEERS
TRENCH-TESTED TIPS ON HANDLING INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR, “FIRING” AN ADULT LEADER, AND RESCUING YOUR TEAMMATES FROM BURNOUT
Turbulence is no fun… but life would be boring without it. Not long ago I was squeezing the life out of my armrests as my San Diego-bound jet plowed through a thunderstorm over Colorado. The gut-punch drops and trayrattling bumps were getting to me. I glanced over at the volunteer youth leader silling next to me-he looked like he was going to revisit his roast casserole any second. “I guess it’s time to start praying,” I mumbled, glancing out the window for signs of a funnel cloud or Christ coming down from heaven on a white horse.
After 10 minutes of bareback jet riding, we emerged over a row of sun-kissed clouds. Smooth sailing. But it was the turbulence that made the flight interesting… and memorable.
Over the 15 years of my youth ministry trajectory. I’ve learned that working with volunteers can be just as turbulent as an airplane caught in an “upper-air disturbance.” Sure, the storms can be scary, but partnered ministry is what makes youth work interesting, fun, and lifechanging. I think the key is learning how to anticipate the storms and ride them out-and there are three areas where that’s crucial.
#1 ADDRESSING INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR
Wrong behaviors in adult leaders run the gamut-from a rude comment or a too-sarcastic joke or an “I thought it was funny at the time” gesture to actions they could get arrested for. What do you do when an adult leader starts acting like a sixth-grader? For example, roughhousing can open doors to better relationships and make new kids feel more at ease, but it can also turn sour quickly. I remember one night at our middle school gathering when an adult leader kept lifting smaller kids off the ground for a few seconds-by their heads and shoulders. One teenager got hurt and stopped coming to youth group.
We need to help our adult leaders understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
* Offer them mentoring and accountability. In my experience, a volunteer who acts inappropriately at youth group is crying out for attention. When children feel unloved, they throw spoons across the table just to see how Mom or Dad will react. Do they deserve a time out for that? Not really. Not all inappropriate volunteer behavior requires swift punishment, either. Let’s say you have an adult leader who’s hanging out with a few kids after an outreach event-he’s talking up the latest 50 Cent song. That’s counterproductive, but not worthy of discipline. Instead, that leader likely needs a little attention.
When you’ve noticed a recurring issue with a volunteer but it’s relatively minor, invite him or her to talk about the issue over breakfast (your treat). My youth worker friend, Greg Jensen, is a master at confrontation-he uses a technique called the appeal. The trick is to appeal to the person’s sense of responsibility for the whole group, rather than simply pointing a finger. Greg asks: “Is this behavior really good for the group?” and “Is this behavior communicating the tone you want to set for the group?”
* Create and communicate a youth ministry code of conduct.1 Here’s the deal with setting rules for youth group volunteers: Establish them early, make them incredibly clear, then let the consequences for breaking the rules do the teaching. I’m not a big fan of constantly bopping an adult leader over the head with a corrective litany: “Don’t gossip, don’t be sarcastic, and don’t swear.” Adult leaders already know that swearing is wrong. When a relatively minor tenet in your code of conduct is violated, the consequence should be an increase in relationship. Learn about the leader’s background-maybe he grew up in a non-Christian home and heard swearing and sarcasm every day. One of my volunteers struggled with mild cursing, but he eventually overcame the problem by meeting with me for prayer, discussion, and encouragement.2
* For behavior that recurs, give the leader a two-month “time out.” Some leaders are more hesitant to change and don’t respond well to your attempts at accountability. I’ve found one of the best tools for dealing with a pattern of inappropriate behavior is a two-month sabbatical. This works for two reasons.
First, asking a leader to step down permanently is really the “nuclear” option. That should be a last resort simply because it may unnecessarily shove the person right out of ministry and the church. second, two months is plenty of time to capture a youth leader’s attention. During the time out, meet with the volunteer regularly for prayer and encouragement. It’s our job to provide directions to the path of freedom, not simply set up a roadblock. If we ask a leader to step down but don’t shepherd her back into “the fold,” we can cause more harm than good.
#2 “FIRING” A LEADER
There was something odd about Brian.* Early on, we seemed destined for a major confrontation. His spent his first night as a volunteer youth leader sitting in the back making snide comments during the message. During a break, he started talking to a girl in the youth group-alone, out in the hallway. That was a clear red flag. When he first asked to serve in our ministry, I decided to give him a week or two to hang out with our kids so I could check him out. He had pretty good credentials from another church. But the next week he was out in the hallway again-alone with a different girl. I knew I had to ask him to leave.
“This just isn’t a good fit for you,” I said after the second Wednesday night. He made an angry gesture and walked out. Turns out he’d grown up in a commune and had trouble with boundaries and appropriate relationships. He was drawn to the girls and avoided talking to the guys. He always sat in the backsomething a student might do-and talked during the message. Adam Johnson, a youth pastor in Brooklyn, says he’s always quick to act on what he knows is true-a tiny flame can quickly become a roaring fire. “Sometimes you just need to draw a line in the sand and tell them when they crossed it,” he says.
When an adult leader makes you uncomfortable, or just doesn’t fit, it’s better to act sooner than later.
* Move the person into a new ministry or role (it works!). Some great people are terrible fits for youth ministry, but they’d thrive in some other role in the church. And some youth leaders are simply filling the wrong role in your ministry. One adult leader I know is super-organized-she wears a stopwatch on her wrist to make sure the worship time and message don’t go too long (I’m not kidding). She loves kids, but her legalistic bent keeps her from being effective with teenagers. Youth ministry is relational at its core, and passionate rule-keeping can poison the water.
When you have a volunteer whose heart is in the right place but whose personality or skills aren’t a good fit, it’s no good to simply move her out of your ministry-find her a new role in your ministry or a new place to give in the church. Does your church’s Wednesday night children’s program need someone who can handle a stopwatch? Maybe the prayer group needs someone to keep track of requests. Think of yourself as a matchmaker-your job is to deftly connect people and ministries.
Once you find a good lead, approach your leader with grace and an option. Say something like: “You know, youth ministry is tough-it can be really hard to work with students who might not even acknowledge your presence half the time. I’ve seen that you’re really organized, and I was wondering if you’d ever thought of helping with the children’s ministry-they really need someone who has your gifts and abilities.”
Now, even when you approach a leader in an attitude of grace, you’re not guaranteed a compliant reaction. One adult leader I know reacted so angrily to my suggestion to move into another ministry that he almost left the church over it. But the bottom line is that your ministry and your teenagers come firstthey’re worth the repercussions.
* Directly confront leaders if the problem involves a moral issue. With Brian, I took a direct approach-the only real option in his case. He didn’t need me to find him a new ministry or role; he needed discipline. Firing a leader is the toughest job in ministry.3 But before you confront a leader, consider a few simple guidelines:
1. Pray before you confront. Forget to do this at your own peril.
2. Start with something positive. First you want to make sure your leader knows he’s valuable and important to you. Think of something specific and positive to lead into what you have to say: “You’re always on time and excited about student ministry.”
3. Get right to the point. No one enjoys confrontation, so the faster you get to the problem, the faster you can move the leader to a response. Anger can build up as you fill time nervously talking about issues that don’t really relate to the problem.
4. Close with prayer. At the end of the confrontation, ask the leader to pray with you-this can help bring closure for both of you.
5. Rest in your decision. If you’ve confronted in love and with a prayerful attitude, God will work in the leader’s heart. Trust him.
#3 VOLUNTEER BURNOUT
In 15 years as a youth leader, I’ve worked with six pastors. Some of them were my best friends. Most left the ministry because they burned out. I’ve seen the intense stages of burnout, and I’ve experienced it myself.
When you’re edging into burnout, the telltale signs include fewer parent meetings (and a disinterest in what they really think), a need for more time away from teenagers (especially later in the year), and programs that are more about starting and ending on time than accomplishing the ministry’s vision. When you’re already well into burnout, your symptoms likely include a hopelessness about ministry, no energy or drive, and despair.
When I was a volunteer leader trudging through a pit of desperation, my church’s youth pastor helped me find a deeper and more vibrant passion for youth ministry. Here’s what worked for me, and what might work for that disinterested lump sitting on your youth-room couch.
* Challenge an experienced leader who’s burning out with a new leadership role. Believe me, this works. “New” means it’s new to you and new to the leader. So consider starting the welcoming team or evangelism team or three-on-three basketball outreach you’ve always wanted to launch, then hand over the reigns to a smoldering leader. Sure, there’s a risk. Some burnedout leaders are in no shape to start a new team. But most volunteers get burned out because they’re going through the motions. Treat your proposal for something new as an opportunity to diagnose what’s gone wrong with your volunteer. Even if the idea doesn’t connect, you’ll likely still discover what you can do to help. Make the changes the leader has requested, and follow up to make sure the burn has been doused.
* Move a burned-out leader up or down in ministry. If the volunteer works with junior highers, move her to the high school ministry, and vice versa. Yes, she might go kicking and screaming, but here’s why this approach works so well. I know some will disagree, but I think middle school ministry isn’t much different from high school ministry-both have music, games, prayer, Bible study, and worship. But the things that are different between the two can challenge an uninspired leader. Experienced leaders will suddenly draw on all their gifts and abilities when they face a familiar but fresh challenge.
* Give them your job for two weeks. I’m serious about this, although you may want to check with your lead pastor first. Remember that a youth ministry is not (as Rick Warren reminds us on the first page of The Purpose-Driven Life) about us. Stepping aside just for a week or two will put a burned-out leader on the hot plate, and I’ve found they return to their volunteer status with new vigor. It communicates a deep trust in their abilities-and it’s something that can relight their pilot light.
* Plan a three-day mini-vacation for a few valuable volunteers. I’m not talking about Club Med here. Pay for a couple of rooms at a Holiday Inn within an hour or two of your town, then relax together, enjoy the local attractions, and generally pamper them. You can’t schedule great conversations with your leadersyou need them in the right place at the right time. While you’re hanging out together, ask questions that can get at the source of impending burnout: “Is there something we could do differently on Wednesday nights to get you more interested?”
* Give burned-out leaders time off for good behavior. As a last resort, ask an unmotivated leader to step down for a short time. By “short time” I mean anything from a week to a year. The length depends on how much the leader has shut down, and on the circumstances that caused the burnout. If the burnout is rooted in a short-term crisis, the leader probably needs just a few weeks off. If it’s a long-term family crisis, for example, then the break needs to be longer.
It’s easy to characterize youth work as all about programs and fun activities-but the really hard work kicks in after the programs are over. Maintain grace and perspective in the midst of the turbulence that’s sure to come as you lead your volunteers, and you’ll grow a healthy ministry.
1 group published an article about a decade ago from youth ministry veterans such as Jim Burns that featured great advice on handling volunteer problems. It’s still as relevant today as when we first published it. If you’re a subscriber, you can check it out by going to our massive, searchable library of back issues. Head to www.groupmag.com and click on Archives, then enter your subscriber number (found on your magazine mailing label), then go to the March 1994 issue and click on “Moral Breakdowns” by Janice Thatcher.
2 Our Media Editor, Bryan Belknap, took on the tough issue of cursing in our January/February issue last year-the article is titled “Curse You!” If you’re a subscriber, check K out by going to our library of back issues. Head to www .groupmag.com and dick on Archives, then enter your subscriber number (found on your magazine mailing label), then go to the January/February 2004 issue and dick on the article.
* Not his real name.
3 For more great advice on firing a volunteer, check out Les Christie’s classic article for group that’s chock-full of great tips. Just go to our library of back issues at www.groupmag.com-click on Archives, then enter your subscriber number (found on your magazine mailing label), then go to the March 1993 issue and click on “When You’ve Had It Up to Here With a Volunteer.”
JOHN BRANDON is a 15-year veteran of junior high ministry. He lives in Minnesota.
Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Sep/Oct 2005
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